May 1, 1997

NASA Helps Find Mayan City





April 7, 1997
updated: May 1, 1997

While scientists on Earth are eagerly awaiting the few crystals and alloy samples they will get back from the MSL-1 mission, one scientist at the Marshall Space Flight Center is hoping for a few frames of film.


Update, May 1, 1997: While the crew of MSL-1 was unable to get the pictures of Guatemala, Dr. Sever and other scientists as the Global Hydrology and Climate Center hope that they will be taken on a later Space Shuttle mission, perhaps as early as STS-84, now scheduled for launch on May 15.

The scenario sounds like something from an Indiana Jones movie: you glance at one picture, and then go hack a trail through the jungle in search of ancient cities and buried treasure. The reality is fairly close, as archaeologists increasingly are using images from space to spot the faint traces of early civilizations.

In this true adventure, the enemy is not a horde of Nazi plunderers, but poverty driving simple farmers to destroy forests in a futile effort to create more farms.

Dr. Thomas Sever, NASA's only archaeologist, uses images from NASA's Landsat and other Earth observation satellites to look for subtle differences in color and contrast that indicate that humankind once had farms and cities under what is now jungle. His main area of study now is Guatemala on the Yucatan Peninsula of Central America.





Landsat image (left) shows deforestation in Mexico up to the border of Guatemala. Within the green space (reduced since the image was made in 1988), NASA archaeologist Tom Sever hopes to find more Mayan ruins like the one he stands on in the picture at right.(Click on picture for larger view)




Looking for invisible traces

Monday, April 7, the crew of Space Shuttle Columbia is scheduled to take several photographs as Columbia passes over. The pictures are part of a larger NASA program, pursued on most Shuttle missions, to capture on film and electronic cameras, with handheld cameras, rich details that escape video cameras and scanners carried by unmanned satellites at higher altitudes.

Sever believes that his team recently discovered a major Mayan city and plans an expedition this May with Drs. Ian Graham and David Stuart of the Hardvard Peabody Museum to translate glyphs (ancient writings) at the site.

"We have come across a site that has stone monuments and roadways," Sever said. The site has only been visited once so far, so little is known about its size or age which may be found on some of the toppled stone monuments.

"There's been very little plundering, so the archaeological and scientific significance is tremendous," said Sever who conveys a great sense of excitement about his work.

"I love it," he admitted. "Where else can you get a job where it's like reading several mystery novels at once - except it's true and there are real answers."

And real threats. NASA is not involved in archaeology to supply museums, but to understand the interaction of humans with weather and climate.

Race to save the ancients

Sever said that the indications are that the farmers of Central America are about to repeat a mistake made by their ancestors. They are cutting and burning down rain forest to make room for farmland which yields crops for only three or four years, then they cut more. Sever said that soil samples from about a millennia ago, when Mayan civilization in the interior collapsed, have no tree pollen, meaning that the region had been stripped bare by over-farming.

The signing of a peace treaty ending a civil war in Guatemala means the deforestation is accelerating as some protected areas are opened to settlement by former rebels, and the ancient cities are at risk.

"With the peace treaty, we truly are in a race to find as much as we can," Sever said, "because fire pulverizes limestone and rain (no longer absorbed by the forest) washes away the remains. Protection of the rain forest is synonymous with protection of archaeological sites."

Sever hopes to extend that protection with pictures from space. If Columbia's crew gets the pictures he requested, then the next expeditions may find still more lost cities, and more clues to the past - and future - of civilization.


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Earth Science


Author: Dave Dooling
Curator: Bryan Walls
NASA Official: John M. Horack